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What's better: traditional or self-publishing?

What’s the best way to publish a non-fiction book?

As with many things, there isn’t a ‘best’ way—just the best way for you. How you choose to publish your book will depend on many factors, not least what your book is about. But although one option isn’t ‘better’ than the other, you do need to know the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing before you decide which route to go down.

What is traditional publishing?

In traditional publishing, you write the manuscript and then license the rights to that manuscript to a publisher. You retain the copyright to your book, but you sign it over to them to publish it for a set period of time and in certain territories/languages. The publisher then produces your book and publishes it, paying you a royalty for each copy sold. You never pay a traditional publisher—they pay you.

The pros of traditional publishing

1. You’ll have the kudos of being a published author. When a traditional publisher believes in your book it shows others that you’re an expert in your field. If you can get accepted by a large publisher, you’ll really start to be taken seriously in your subject area.

2. It doesn’t cost anything. Traditional publishers don’t ask you to pay to publish your book, and you might even get royalties up front (called an advance). If you’re lucky enough to land a big publisher, this could run into thousands.

3. It’s not as difficult as you think to get a publishing deal. If you’ve got a good platform such as a large social media following or professional qualifications, getting a publisher’s attention could be easier than you think. If you’ve also got an idea that fills a gap in the market, you could be well on your way to getting an offer for your book.

4. The publishing company will help you to market your book. Publishing is a business just like any other, so publishers want to make sure your book makes money and will have dedicated marketers to get your book in front of its audience. But remember: published authors are still required to do a lot of the marketing, as the best person to sell your book is you.

5. Your book will look professional. Publishers use professional typesetters and cover designers who understand the industry and will make your book look as good as it can—right down to the last detail.

6. The publisher will take care of the entire production process. Once you submit your manuscript in its best possible shape, you’ll be guided through every step of the publishing process by your editor. Copyeditors, designers, proofreaders and project managers are there to make sure everything runs smoothly and the only thing you may have to arrange yourself is an index (contact me here if you need a professional indexer).

7. You’re likely to sell more copies. Publishers only invest in books they think will sell and it’s in their best interests to get behind you, so you’re likely to sell more books if you can get a traditional deal.

8. Your book will be available in high street bookstores. Bookshops like WH Smith and Waterstones buy directly from the publisher, so traditional publishing is usually the only way to get your book distributed on the high street.

The cons of traditional publishing

1. You won’t have as much artistic or editorial control over your book. When you sign a contract with a publisher you usually hand over your right to control how the book looks. Although a good publisher will always take your views into account, they’ll have the final say on things like title, cover design and retail price.

2. You’ll keep a lower percentage of your book sales. Traditional publishing usually pays you a royalty of around 10% from the sale of each copy of your book, although this can vary. This is a lot less than self-publishing, so try to work out how many more books you think you’ll sell.

3. It takes longer. Because your book has to fit into a wider publishing schedule and publishers have to sell in to bookshops months in advance, it usually takes around 9 months for a book to be published traditionally.

4. Not everyone will get a publishing deal! You need have a great idea, be a credible author, write a great book proposal, know which publishers to approach and, if you’re going after the big ones, how to get an agent to represent you. (If you’re at this stage, I can help you with writing your book proposal.)

5. You may be restricted by your contract on what material you can reuse. Because you’re licensing your book to the publisher, they won’t want you to make that material available elsewhere. This might restrict you from publishing extracts on your blog, or giving away free samples.

What is self-publishing?

Self-publishing is when you produce your book yourself. Although it sounds daunting, it’s much easier to do than you think, and many authors successfully self-publish using Amazon. There are lots of talented freelance professionals who specialise in offering editorial, design and proofreading services to authors who want to self-publish.

The pros of self-publishing

1. You keep control over every aspect of your book. From what goes in it to how the cover looks to the retail price and where it’s sold, if you self-publish you can do exactly what you like.

2. You keep more of your royalties. Self-publishing allows you to keep up to 80% of the price your book sells for, compared to only around 10% for traditional publishing.

3. You can publish as soon as your manuscript is ready. In theory you can self-publish a book in just a few clicks, but in reality there are quite a few processes to go through. However, if you want to react to a zeitgeist or you’ve got a deadline to meet, self-publishing is by far the quickest option.

4. You can print on demand. Print on Demand (POD) means that a book is only printed when an order is placed. So self-publishing no longer involves buying and storing a large print run. POD also means the cost is low and you don’t have to take up space in your garage.

5. You can make changes to your book and republish it at any time. Self-publishing using POD means that, if there’s a mistake in your book or you just want to update it, you can make changes to the file and re-upload it whenever you like.

6. You can reuse your material exactly as you want. As there’s no commercial partner involved, you can publish the content from your book in any way you like, e.g. as a blog, free chapters, downloads or on social media.

The cons of self-publishing

1. You have to project manage everything yourself. From editing, typesetting and cover design to proofreading, indexing and ebook conversion, you’ll have to do everything yourself if you self-publish. So, unless you happen to be an expert in all these areas, you’ll need to employ professionals to do these tasks for you. This can run into thousands of pounds if you want to use high-quality professionals.

2. You’ll need to print copies if you want to sell them yourself. POD is great, but if you give talks or conferences you might want copies of your book to sell in real life. In this case you’ll need to print, pay for and store your books yourself.

3. It’s harder to get a professional finish. Traditional publishers know exactly what a book should look and feel like to catch the eye of your reader. On the other hand, you’re unlikely to know what details like running heads, front and end matter, formatting and font choice should look like. Cover design is also vital. There are many freelance cover designers out there, but it’s not always easy to find a good one.

4. Bookshops rarely stock self-published books. You can pop down to your local bookshop and try to persuade them to stock your book, but in general bookstores only buy from sales reps for traditional publishers.

5. You’ll have to do all the marketing and promotion yourself. Without a publisher behind you, everything’s up to you. You’ll need to promote your book on social media whichever option you choose, but if you self-publish you won’t have the backing of a marketing and PR department. You can employ a book publicist, but this could cost hundreds of pounds.

So what’s the conclusion?

As you can see, there are plenty of pros and cons of both self- and traditional publishing. Making a final decision will depend on what’s right for you and the constraints placed upon you by things like time and budget.

Here are some final questions to ask before you choose which route to go down:

· Who am I writing my book for and how are they likely to find it?

· What do I want to get out of writing a book? (money, more business, expert status…)

· Do I have any money to invest?

· How much expertise do I have in publishing processes?

· How much time do I have to dedicate to publishing my book?

· Is there a deadline to meet or an optimum time to publish my book?

· How commercial is my idea and what is the competition?

If you have any more questions or would like some advice on preparing your book for publication, just get in touch and I’d love to help.

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